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196. The GCQRI development agenda

2011-08-29 Comments Off on 196. The GCQRI development agenda

The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative’s (GCQRI) Research Planning committee met in Nicaragua back in April to sketch out a preliminary five-year strategic research plan.  The meeting produced two research agendas — one for coffee supply and another for coffee quality.

On the supply side, there are two places where GCQRI and the international development community clearly meet in service of this worthy goal: short-term projects and “technology transfer.”  The development agenda wasn’t as clear to me on the quality side of the ledger.

Coffee Supply Collaborations.

The GCQRI’s explict collaborations with development actors to increase the supply of quality coffee will go a long way in helping ensure the success of the whole GCQRI enterprise.  Even still, I wonder whether GCQRI’s leadership may be underestimating the cost and importance of these dimensions of its work.

  • Coffee Development Projects

The “Promotion, conception and implementation of coffee development projects in challenged origin countries” is listed as the first project in the GCQRI Research Supply Chart.  It is presented as a “GCQRI-leveraged activity” that will be delivered at “no cost to industry.”  If there is to be meaningful integration of the GCQRI agenda with coffee development projects at origin, however, my experience suggests the costs to industry will be significant.

What is “meaningful integration?”  In my mind, it is bringing the full weight of the GCQRI process and cumulative knowledge base to bear within the construct of short-term development projects at origin.  This is an intensive, iterative process that begins with integrated planning, moves into implementation and performance analysis, then planning adjustments, and the cycle starts all over again.  As someone who has worked to link quality-focused roasters with processes like this at origin, I find the “no cost to industry” idea challenging.  You can’t “phone in” participation in processes like these.  “Meaningful integration” of GCQRI and development agenda may not require cash contributions to a project budget, but it will certainly require a lot of time and energy of the innovators who fill the ranks of GCQRI’s industry supporters.

  • “Technology transfer”

Project S2.0 on the GCQRI Research Supply Chart is “Accelerated technology transfer projects and GAP diffusion.”

What does that mean?

It means making sure that all the knowledge and insight generated by GCQRI actually finds its way to the farmers and is translated into action in the field.

It is hard to overestimate my excitement at seeing this item on the agenda.  In the past, I have raised concern here (and elsewhere) about the absence of mechanisms to reconcile the best-available “technological packages” with the lived realities of smallholder farmers.

Adopting new technologies is tricky business for smallholder farmers who face acute constraints on land (how can I make the most income possible on nine-tenths of one hecatare of land?), cash (how can I afford the new improved varietal?), risk (even if I could afford the new varietal, how can I justify the expense when it doesn’t have a track record?) and knowledge (who is going to show me how to use all this great technology?).  It is my fear that unless these questions are answered to the satisfaction of smallholder farmers, even the best technology could sit on the shelf waiting for co-investment from industry or other sources to reduce these constraints.  Or worse, GCQRI technologies will be available only on a pay-to-play basis, putting smallholder farmers at a systemic disadvantage vis-a-vis estates.

The inclusion of S2.0 creates reason for some hope in this regard. There seems to be a clear role here for development agencies of all kinds to open spaces for collaboration and facilitate processes of technology transfer.

The 2-5% target for supply increases attributable to this activity caught my eye, however.  If this activity is not done well, 100 percent of the success of the GCQRI among smallholder farmers could be at risk.